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How Tight is your Girth?

Over the years I have been asked many times at pony club lessons to “check your girth”. I was told that my girth was too loose and needed to be tightened. This would often be followed by an instructor hiking up the girth on my horse. I once heard an instructor reference a members horses girth was so loose “you can fit sandwiches in there”. Learning about horses at a young age, you will always look to your instructor and professional for guidance and help. So naturally I always assumed that a girth have to “very tight” in order to be secure in my saddle. I completed my undergraduate dissertation in the field of girthing and was enlightened by what research was out there.

It can be said that there is not a lot of attention given to the girth. That often saddle fit would be focused on  and girthing to be over looked. Even with the vast array of girth available on the market, there isn’t many studies on girth design. One study looked at the Fairfax girth compared to dressage girths (Murray et al., 2013) and found that the Fairfax girth greatly improved the horses way of going. The issue I have with this study is that girth tension was not controlled. The girths were all tightened to “the tension that the rider normally used” which could lead to one horse having an over tightened girth and another having a looser one. I investigated the effect of girth design in horses, which included the Fairfax girth. I used six riding school horses, who were all ridden with their normal girth, a gel girth, the Fairfax girth and a leather stud girth. The girths were all tightened to 13kg as this was proved to be the average tightness. The results of the study found that none of the girths gave a significant improvement of the horses way of going. Looking to the numbers alone, the gel girth showed improvement.

Girth tightness has proven to be very important. Over tightening of the girth has been shown to decline a horses performance, and should not be ignored. In a study investigating girth tension and the effect on racehorses (Bowers & Slocombe, 1999) showed that the increase in girth tension had a negative effect on the racehorses run to fatigue time.  The horses had girth tensions set to 5, 10, 15 and 20kg. All horses showed a reduced run to fatigue time and distance when the girth tension increased over 5kg. It was found that every increase by 1 kg in girth tension was associated with a reduction in distance to fatigue by 98.3 m ± 28.6m and a corresponding reduction in run times of 0.24 ± 0.07 min. In a survey conducted by the researchers, found that the average girth tightness was 13kg.

Girth material was also investigated in relation to tightness (Bowers & Slocombe, 2005) The study looked at different racing girths and the effect on the horses at different tightness (6,12 and 18kg). They had fully elastic girths, part elastic part canvas and fully canvas girths ( five girths in total). It was found that two of the elastic girths were shown to produce significantly longer run to fatigue times compared to the canvas girths. The girth tension at 6 and 12kg showed significantly longer run to fatigue times compared to the 18kg girth tension. It is from this that you can conclude elastic girth material and tension have a significant impact on horses way of going.

So why does the horses performance reduce with the canvas material and increased girth tension? As the thorax of the horse expands with exercise, tension increases in the girth and more elastic materials develop less tension. It was also found in another study (Wright, 2010 ) that actual girth tension increased significantly between all gaits at exercise. So when you apply an intended girth tension it will increase during exercise. The restriction of the muscles in the girth area (pectoral muscles) will have an effect on the movement of the front legs. This in turn will reduce stride length, which has an effect on the ventilation system of the horse. When a horse canters or gallops the lungs are filled and emptied by the use of the visceral piston.  If the stride length of the horse is shortened this will have a direct impact on its breathing and ability to take in oxygen (Gavin, 2008).

So next time you are tightening your girth, think about how how much your are tightening it. It could impede your horses performance and comfort. Look to more elastic based girthing materials if you are purchasing a new girth for your horse.

References

Bowers, J. and Slocombe, R. (1999) “Influence of girth strap tensions on athletic thoroughbred horses“, Australian Veterinary Journal, 56-57

BOWERS, J. and SLOCOMBE, R.F. (2005) “Comparison of girth materials, girth tensions and their effects on performance in racehorses,” Australian Veterinary Journal, 83(1-2), pp. 68–74.

Gavin. A, (2008) “Girthing”, All English Tack, Hastilow Competition Saddles USA.

Murray, R. et al. (2013) “Girth pressure measurements reveal high peak pressures that can be avoided using an alternative girth design that also results in increased limb protraction and flexion in the swing phase,” The Veterinary Journal, 198(1), pp. 92–97.

Wright, S. (2010) “Girth tensions and their variability while standing and during exercise,” Comparative Exercise Physiology, 7(03), pp. 141–148.

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